By Wayne Allensworth
“Sic transit mundus” (Brother Joshua in A Canticle for Liebowitz)
In 1959’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, author William M. Miller’s story suggests a series of questions that are as pressing now as they were during the Cold War, when a nuclear apocalypse was very much on the collective mind of the world: Is civilization possible without the continuing advancement of technological development? Is it possible to maintain civilization with such development? Can technology be contained so as not to undermine civilization? Like the forked tongue of the serpent from which it came, technological development is both reflective of and advances civilization, while simultaneously ultimately posing a catastrophic danger to civilized life. Every advance that produced engineering marvels like the great Gothic cathedrals also carried with it the seeds of further advances that eventually yielded nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, and inhuman “trans” ideologies. That’s to say nothing of the potential for a degree of digitized control over humanity past dictators could only have dreamed of. Manifestations of humanity’s potential for both wisdom and suicidal foolishness, technological advances exist on a moral continuum. The tongue of the serpent draws us in, and the serpent’s teeth can be quite deadly. Lucifer is at once the morning star, the light bearer of intelligence, and the rebellious angel who falls like lightning from heaven. Satan the adversary manifest in man’s intellect and his unbridled ego.
The problem of civilization and technology had plagued Miller since he witnessed the destruction of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino during World War II as a crew member on an American bomber. It traumatized him. The venerable monastery had played a prominent role in the revival of civilization following the fall of the Western Roman empire, as its monks were at the forefront of preserving precious manuscripts they carefully copied. They participated in the vital civilizational impulse that forged Christendom out of the bricolage of the Greco-Roman past, the Church serving as the vehicle of preservation and then the flourishing of a new civilization. The monks had held on to forgotten knowledge. A time would come when the world as they knew it would be ready for it.
And that’s what the monks of a distant future do in Miller’s dystopian novel. They labor in a desert monastery, amid the ashes left behind by a nuclear holocaust (the “Flame Deluge”), preserving and copying the artifacts of a half forgotten past, especially what are to them the largely unintelligible technical writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz, a man who was martyred in the tumultuous aftermath of the destruction of his world. The novel covers the passage of hundreds of years, always going back to the labors of the monks against a backdrop of the revival of civilization, then the serpentine arc of technological development that eventually threatens the survival of humanity once more. As the warring countries of the world prepare to launch the next holocaust, the abbot of the monastery plans to save humanity — and its civilizational artifacts — by launching a crew into the vast reaches of space to plant the seeds of civilization once again when Earth is destroyed. The cycle of rise and fall would go on.
Miller’s novel poses another question, however. Would men ever truly be ready for knowledge? Would they neglect cultivating the wisdom necessary to know what might be used for good, while remaining wary of the serpent in the guise of arrogant, irresponsible, and evil men? The implications of A Canticle for Leibowitz are profound and troubling, at once melancholy and hopeful: that humanity must advance technologically as civilization evolves, and at the same time await the day when that technological advance will destroy the very civilization that produced it, the time when humanity aspires to displace God. And when destruction follows, monks in one form or another will arise to preserve the core artifacts of civilization, holding on to them dearly, even as the curiosity that is both humanity’s blessing (in reasoned faith) and its curse (in its haughty intellect) seeks to pry the secrets away from them. Always prematurely. For only a sanctified humanity could wield knowledge and avoid the teeth of the serpent, a condition that will never be attained.
Yet the reader of Miller’s novel might conclude that a journey from ignorance and darkness to knowledge that can be enlightened wisdom, or a temptation and a fall, is the only path by which flawed humanity can aspire to reflect truth, create beauty, and do good, even if humanity is tragically doomed to ultimately fail time and again. A Canticle for Leibowitz is pessimistic and hopeful, a great circle that revolves around its blessings and its warnings, reflecting civilization’s crowning achievements and its dismal sins, over and over until the end of the universe. The ancients believed the circle was the form that best reflected the divine. And in Miller’s novel, the reader gathers that history is both cyclical and linear, from beginnings to ends and on to new beginnings in a Christ haunted universe.
St. Isaac Leibowitz died trying to convince vengeful mobs bent on destroying all traces of civilization and the “Magi,” the scientists and scholars connected to it, that what the monks were preserving (“The Memorabilia”) was worth saving. Humanity would await a better day. But the mob sees only the ashes left by a self-destructive civilization. It hates the fruits of civilization and embraces a willful ignorance expressed in obscurantist violence. Leibowitz was a repentant “Magi” himself, a scientist and technician who sought refuge in a fallout bunker as his world and his family were incinerated in the Flame Deluge. The order of monks established in his name would be the carriers of civilization through the darkness. The tensions between faith and intellect, between reason and rationalism, between science and scientism are an undercurrent running throughout Miller’s story. The reader is left to wrestle with those issues.
As in Miller’s novel, our world is approaching a nightmare that only the serpent in us — as transmitted through Iain McGilchrist’s power seeking Left Hemisphere — relishes. “Transhumanism” is on the way, its ideology channeled through the nervous system of post-modern humanity’s version of Nimrod’s tower, the Internet. Globalism is the vehicle by which we will bring on the next great deluge. But some Noah, some survivors of the destruction of the technological Sodom and Gomorrah, will carry on as long there is a world.
The great historian of art and civilization Kenneth Clark once answered the question, “What is civilization?” by saying he didn’t know exactly, except that he knew it when he saw it. He distinguished between “culture,” the web of folkways and artifacts that marked one tribe from another, and “civilization,” which aspired to something higher, something that could in its way reflect the divine. Truth, goodness, and beauty. As we watch the current cycle of advance, decline, and self-destruction play out, we should reflect on the inherent tragic nature of the human condition, and aspire to reach for heaven once again, while avoiding the serpent’s teeth as long as we can.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.